Press Ombudsman dismisses complaint from ‘private army’

Allegations of torture in Somalia

The Press Ombudsman has dismissed a security company owners’ complaint against Independent Newspapers, regarding two stories published in the Weekend Argus, he said in a finding released on Wednesday.

According to the finding, the first story was published on September 1 last year under the headline: “UN slams SA ‘private army’ Security firm accused of breaking sanctions, torture SA failing in its obligation to clamp down on mercenaries, says report”.

The second story was a follow-up published on page 11 on September 29, headlined “SA-linked military firm loses anti-piracy contract”.

Ombudsman Johan Retief and an adjudication panel said Sterling Corporate Services’ (SCS) owner Lafras Luitingh complained that the first story omitted important facts, that the headline was misleading, and that the newspaper did not try to verify the allegations against him and his company.

He complained that the reporter failed to correct the mistakes in the second story, even though he was provided with information, and that the references to “private army” in both stories wrongly suggested that he was involved in illegal activities.

In the first story, Ivor Powell and Bianca Capazorio reportedly wrote that a United Nations report had “slammed” SCS for mustering a “private army” in defiance of international agreements.

The UN report, authored by the its Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea (SEMG), reportedly condemned SCS for “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation of the Somalia sanctions regime”, and for allegedly torturing local recruits.

The reporters wrote that it accused the South African government of failing to fulfil its international obligations “which include clamping down on mercenary activities”.

They wrote that the SCS operated as the private army of President Abdirahman Mohamud Faroole of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland (a region in northeastern Somalia).

They also reported that SCS had been involved in operations against Faroole’s enemies, “though officially contracted only to train and provide military advice to the Puntland administration”.

The story reportedly added that although SCS was mainly contracted to train an anti-piracy force, the bulk of its operations was directed against villages in the hinterland with little connection to Somali pirates holding shipping routes to ransom.

The story mentioned examples of alleged torture and “murderous corporal punishment”.

The follow-up story, written by Powell, reported that SCS had lost a contract to train a paramilitary Puntland Maritime Police Force against piracy in the Horn of Africa. It elaborated on the first story.

Retief and the panel concluded that the newspaper was justified in calling the SEMG’s Report a “UN report”, as a document “adopted” by the Security Council became an official document of the UN.

It also found that Luitingh had not brought any relevant UN document to the panel’s attention to substantiate his claim that the UN permitted his actions in Somalia.

“The panel finds that the newspaper did contact Luitingh and ask for his comment and that, in addition, they had published comment from a number of other involved parties. Luitingh had it within his power to provide comment and had chosen not to do so.”

While the panel accepted that Luitingh and his counsel were convinced that the second story should have reflected their views, which for them meant a correction, the panel did not believe this would have been appropriate.

It found the newspaper was justified in using the phrase “private army” as the phrase was used in the SEMG’s report.

Both parties have seven working days to appeal the decision. – Sapa